Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The city has agreed to pay $400,000 to a former Albuquerque Police Department official who threatened to sue the city but never actually filed his case in court.
The city is characterizing it as the latest in a string of settlements tied to former APD Chief Michael Geier’s time leading the department.
The settlement between the city and John Ross – who served as Geier’s chief of staff – comes about two years after a former APD executive assistant accused Ross of several instances of misconduct. In a July 2020 letter to Geier, Paulette Diaz alleged Ross received a raise and made various purchases – including a laptop computer – without the proper approvals.
Geier subsequently ordered an Internal Affairs investigation into Ross. It found no major infractions, an APD spokesman said in 2020.
Geier was appointed by Mayor Tim Keller, serving as police chief from 2017 until Keller forced him to resign in September 2020.
As part of Geier’s appointed executive team, Ross’ job was tied to Geier’s and he had to leave at the same time, according to an APD spokesman.
Ross’ legal counsel earlier this year threatened the city with a lawsuit, saying Ross had been the subject of false allegations made by Geier and Diaz and that the city had not responded to an earlier request for Ross to get his job back.
The letter from attorney Levi Monagle to then-City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. included a draft lawsuit alleging that the city had violated the Whistleblower Protection Act in Ross’ case.
Ross had alleged misconduct by Diaz, creating a rift with Geier who was “fiercely loyal to Diaz,” the document says. Geier retaliated against Ross for that and for questioning some of the then-chief’s “unlawful and improper” decisions, the draft complaint says, and Geier’s retaliation had ultimately led to Ross’ termination.
“While Mr. Ross has no personal vendetta or scores to settle regarding APD or the City’s leadership, it has become apparent that legal action is the only way for Mr. Ross to be made whole for the retaliation that he suffered from Chief Geier – and the subsequent and distinct indignity of having his name dragged through the mud without legal recourse” by the media, Monagle’s March 10, 2022, letter to Aguilar says.
An attorney for Geier and Diaz said the claims make no sense, contending that it was Diaz who actually suffered retaliation by the Keller administration. Attorney Thomas Grover said he had no idea about Ross’ claims until reached by the Journal, saying he was “flabbergasted.”
“The idea that John Ross was retaliated upon out of purported concerns that he expressed to Geier is shocking to say the least, in terms of this being completely undisclosed before,” Grover said. “Geier has no knowledge of this.”
Monagle’s letter – provided to the Journal by the city and Ross’ legal counsel – also references a lawsuit Geier and Diaz had themselves filed against the city and proposes that the city avoid the “intensified crossfire of litigation regarding Chief Geier’s tenure at APD” by instead attempting to resolve Ross’ claims via pre-lawsuit mediation.
Ross and city officials inked the $400,000 settlement agreement in late October.
It says the city denies allegations it acted unlawfully but that the parties agreed “it is in the interest of the Parties to avoid further legal proceedings regarding the employer-employee relationship” and to enter into the settlement agreement.
A city spokesman lumped the settlement in with others tied to the Geier era.
“The City has paid out several settlements as a result of allegations of mismanagement and retaliation by the former Chief of Police,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in a written statement. “However, APD has made major strides in changing its culture and meeting the reform requirements under the DOJ settlement agreement. Mayor Keller also created the Superintendent of Police Reform position to ensure a more professional and accountable discipline process.”
Gallegos noted that the city now has settled four cases “related” to Geier that total $1.4 million. That includes previously disclosed settlements with former Cmdr. John Sullivan ($550,000) and two APD Academy officers ($175,000 each).
The city of Albuquerque also agreed to pay $116,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former police commander who claimed he was wrongly demoted after writing a report about the department’s handling of Donald Trump’s 2016 political rally Downtown.
Steve Altman sued the city and multiple current and former APD officials – including Geier and current Chief Harold Medina – claiming breach of contract, violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act and more.
According to the complaint Altman filed in state court in Sandoval County, Altman was an APD commander who oversaw the Aviation Division but was demoted to lieutenant in December 2017. His suit cites an “after-action” report Altman had authored about the events surrounding Trump’s rally in Albuquerque as a presidential candidate in 2016.
The report was required by the monitor evaluating APD’s performance under its settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the suit contends, and Altman’s superiors made him write it due to his then-position in operation review. Some APD officials “perceived” it as “critical of the Department,” the suit says, and “the new city administration did not appreciate (Altman’s) assessment of the event and was not prepared to let it stand with any type of criticism and had him demoted.”
The demotion occurred about a week after Keller took office as mayor.
Geier’s attorney objected to blaming the former chief for everything, saying he did not operate in a silo.
“There wasn’t anything that was done without the mayor’s consent, if not direction,” Grover said. “There were no independent actions by Geier.”
The $1.4 million in Geier-related settlements Gallegos cited did not include $50,000 the city recently agreed to pay Diaz to settle a suit she filed in 2020 alleging the city had violated the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act. Her suit claimed the city wrongly withheld documents she requested regarding the Internal Affairs investigation into Ross.